Please enjoy this excerpt from David’s latest fantasy novel:
Down in the realms of foolish mortals, six white obelisks of polished stone stood erect around a central stage in mock, miniature imitation of the thrones of Aoleus, which the eyes of mortals had never seen. Here the noble elves gathered for an ancient ritual by setting sun, a trial of champions, in barbaric homage to their holy and revered patrons of fire, frost, earth, wind and water.
Among these noble elves was the fair Zanphir, exalted princess of the House of Wind. A tall female, by elf standards, Zanphir was tortuously pretty, but in a cold, untouchable way. Eyes of deepest blue, clothes of finely woven mithril, her jewelry of the finest elfin craftsmanship–ageless, timeless beauty that glistened by moonlight and sparkled beneath the setting sun.
Many a paramour had fawned over this maid from the grand House of Wind, but none had yet to capture her heart. Nor would they, for Zanphir knew her worth and would hold out for the best possible match. And, indeed, everything she did, even to the point of witnessing a bloody duel, was orchestrated towards this all-consuming end.
And so Zanphir, cold, unattainable, but beautiful, clapped her hands together with childish glee at the coming event, drawing the eyes and hearts of many a lovesick noble male about her.
“The rules are simple,” she said with much enthusiasm, and her delicate voice rang like the call of the multi-colored songbird from distant southern shores. “No magic. No guile. Just steel on steel. See how pure it is? I can’t believe you’ve never come out to witness before. It’s your duty, you know, as a citizen of the capital.” Zanphir shook her head in derision, her long, silver locks dancing over her bare white shoulders like a chorus to her sing-song narration.
But if Zanphir was the prettiest blossom in a hundred, her consort, Ilona, was the queen rose in a thousand, perhaps ten thousand. In elfin culture, beauty was not something to be left to subjective taste. After ten thousand years of continuous civilization, beauty had been fully plumbed to its minutest attribute. On her fifteenth birthday, the mystic Nuns of the Aolean Coven declared her epaphra or perfect, a blessing which occurred in the elfin world only once a millennium.
Her flawless physical form, raven hair, infinitely dark as a starless night sky, and deep green eyes, like the southern sea in summer, captured the hearts of an entire generation of young elfin males. Many thought that Ilona, the noble princess of the House of Fire, would soon wed having been so ordained, but she did not. Years passed without so much as a hint of a union. But in truth, this troubled no one very much. Elfin lives were long and Ilona’s beauty would not fade until the rivers had worn the mountains into the sea. And none would ever surpass her.
“I fail to see the point,” Ilona said after a moment’s meditation.
“The point? What point? When the red orb of the sun licks the great waters on the western horizon, the combatants enter between the monoliths of the Kaj and cross glaives. One falls and–”
“They kill each other!” Ilona exclaimed with sudden understanding. Her outburst drew the eyes of a few spectators, all noble males, and Zanphir blanched with embarrassment.
“No, they don’t kill each other,” Zanphir whispered harshly, and then shrugged. “One elf kills the other elf.”
Zanphir hurried to explain. “But that rarely happens.”
“But you said–”
“I said he falls. Many blows can cause a fall. The blade can simply pierce the skin drawing the merest sliver of blood. His opponent withdraws from the Kaj to seek healing and a victor is declared. They don’t have to kill each other, if they don’t need to.”
“Don’t need to? They don’t need to do any of this. It’s just a stupid game.” More eyes fell on the hooded pair, and some with recognition, for even under a hood Ilona’s beauty could not be easily hidden.
“No, they don’t need to. And would you keep your voice down. If my mother finds out I’m here, she’ll send me back to the Abbey with the nuns.” Zanphir looked at Ilona, a wicked grin on her face. “And yours will roast you like a pig.”
Ilona laughed despite her anger. Her mother was known for her fiery temper, and it was no idle threat. The Matron of Fire was a powerful mage of great destructive force, and she would not approve of her youngest daughter’s presence at such an event. Ilona knew she should leave. She should throw back her hood, cast a reproachful glare upon all about her and march out of the ancient Kaj with disdain. But that would achieve nothing. The barbaric contest would go on, another elf would fall, perhaps never to rise again. And the witnesses, having sated their baser lusts, would retire with the smug consolation that they had done their civic duty.
No, she had something else planned for these two savages.
“Oh, there he is,” Zanphir squealed, her hands clapping excitedly once again.
A tall elf entered the ring, the gryphon feather in his hat making him look like a giant. He wore the colors of House Etoca and the blades on his back sparkled with magical gems of every hue. He was not particularly handsome, but he didn’t need to be with weapons that sparkled as his did. A white tiger of the most intricate design rose from his left hand-guard as if poised to strike with claw and fang, while his right guard sported a fiery red dragon of equal magnificence. Both weapons were double-bladed, finely crafted with glyphs and gems of various designs, and glowing, the tiger blue and the dragon red. The wielder of these exquisite tools of execution raised his hands and the little arena erupted in applause.
“It’s Du’ina, my cousin. He’s a glaive master of the highest degree, a real devil.” Zanphir chuckled wickedly, her delicate hands flapping together like the wings of a butterfly. “His younger brother was defeated last week by some country glaive lord back from the war.”
Glaive lord, like love or war, was a term with multiple meanings. Literally it denoted the weapon of choice of this class of elf. The glaive, although varying in size and design, roughly consisted of a long curved blade attached to a pole. Millennia of military experience had determined the glaive to be the superior melee weapon–more powerful than the sword and more adaptable than the spear or halberd. Glaive lords commanded soldiers and earned their noble titles through military conquest and defense.
But to some nobles in Xristhana, it was a hollow title. Glaive lords were lesser elves, at best a necessary evil. For glaive lords did no magic. By whatever evil twist of fate or cruel joke of the implacable gods, these particular elves were born without the ethereal spark that had so elevated elfin culture above the common beast. In the words of Ilona’s mother, “An elf without magic is to be pitied above all creatures.”
“Glaive lords,” Zanphir repeated with a disdainful snort. Ilona made no comment, and Zanphir eyed her suspiciously. But then she remembered the rest of her tale and her wicked smile returned. “But he won’t enjoy his victory long. Du’ina tricked him into another challenge.”
“He tricked him?”
“Congratulated him on his technique.” Zanphir smiled knowingly. When Ilona again did not reciprocate the arrogant sentiment, as most elves would have, Zanphir rolled her eyes. “He was insulting him,” she said as if the point had been obvious. “Oh Ilona, sometimes you are just so naïve.”
Ilona regarded her friend out of the corner of her eye. She was not entirely convinced that Zanphir knew that much more about male combat than she did, but she let the comment pass for the moment.
“What happened to Du’ina’s brother?”
“What?” Zanphir was mesmerized by the coming spectacle and found it hard to concentrate on anything else. “Oh, nothing. Just got poked in the thigh. He crawled out of the ring crying. It was a little embarrassing, or so I heard. I wasn’t here, of course. At least not for all of it.” Zanphir shrugged again.
“Du’ina won’t return the civility, I’m afraid. Oh, I don’t know if he’ll actually kill him. Maybe just a few tendons, or a few fingers, maybe a thumb, but the country elf will never duel again, that much is certain.”
Ilona cringed, but now she was more determined than ever to put a stop to this madness. Du’ina took a few more bows and then cast his glance around the stone Kaj as if to say, “Where is my opponent?” The elves laughed. They loved a duelist; it was true. But they loved a showman even more. That’s what made a true glaive master, after all.
Just then, a wild-looking elf stepped out from behind the monoliths on the opposite side of the small arena. His skin was tanned a deep chocolate like a common farmer, and his hair–his hair was as unruly as a lion’s mane, undecided in both direction and color, at once brown and blonde, and streaked here and there with a color that was closer to the sea than the sky. He bowed courteously to Du’ina, and then turned to face the setting sun. He made no attempt to acknowledge the crowd of nobility who had gathered to witness the contest. Indeed, he seemed completely unaware of their existence. It was no small wonder that he had garnered such disdain among the upper classes who eagerly anticipated his demise.
When he was completely satisfied that the sun had indeed set, the country elf drew his weapon–a simple soldier’s glaive devoid of glow or gem. How he had defeated any noble elf with such a bar of iron, none could tell.
“May we begin?” he queried, although his voice was so muted that only the keenest of elfin ears could have heard it.
Du’ina turned to the audience for approval and they roared their consent. With a dramatic flourish, the noble elf drew his glaives. They gleamed in the setting sun. The blade in his right hand, enchanted with raging fire, pulsed with magical red energy. In contrast, the left blade glowed a bright blue and contained the power of the icy storm. Ilona had seen such enchanted weapons before and was appalled at the unfairness of the contest. She would have to work quickly to save the country glaive lord from a quick and ignominious death.
“They are about to begin. Oh, it’s so exciting! I hope it doesn’t end too quickly,” Zanphir babbled over her shoulder, but Ilona could not reply. Her lips had already begun the ancient chant. She felt the innate magical energy of her ancestors welling within her like a volcano. She had not yet completed her charm when she heard the first clash of steel and saw the blinding flash of the lethal glaives.
Never before had she witnessed such animal ferocity, such a display of raw physical power. The glaive lord dashed forward like a mighty force of nature, his single glaive spinning like a whirlwind. She heard Zanphir gasp beside her. There was no time to cheer on her champion, only to fear for his demise. Ilona pulled down her hood to cover her mouth and hurried to finish her spell, now fearing more for the life of Du’ina than for that of the glaive lord.
Du’ina gave ground almost immediately, his glowing glaives thrust out before him in a vain attempt to fend off the onslaught. He grunted with the effort, but try as he might, he could not hold back the country elf’s blinding attack. Step after step brought him closer to the outer ring, but he had no choice. If he did not give ground, he would fall to the country elf’s invincible blade.
“Oh no,” Zanphir chirped like a frightened bird as she bolted to her feet. Ilona stood beside her. In the commotion, no one appeared to notice as she held out her hand and recited the last syllable of her charm.
She expected the wind to howl and the ground to shake. She expected the ring to split apart and the six ancient monoliths to topple one upon another. And she fully expected to face a severe reprimand from her mother, Matron of the House of Fire, upon her return home. But as it turned out, none of these things happened.
Instead, there was a flash of red from her Bloodstone ring, and then nothing. It wasn’t a bright flash. In fact, nobody even noticed it, except perhaps the country elf. He turned mid swing and for an instant, Ilona thought she saw him look directly at her, and the corner of his thin lips turn up in a smile.
Ilona felt her heart leap into her stomach. She feared she had been discovered. She cared little about the punishment she might incur. She was an heir to the House of Fire, the most powerful magic family in all of Xristhana. What could these minor nobles possibly do to her? But that didn’t change the fact that she had tried to stop a civic duel–tried and failed. It was the shame she feared most of all.
But then, without warning, the strange elf simply stepped back from his assault and harnessed his single glaive.
Du’ina teetered on the edge of the raised stone circle for an interminable moment and then finally stumbled forward, his double-bladed glaives at the ready. And yet, although the country elf’s glaive was still on his back, Du’ina did not seem eager to press on with the contest. Remembering the crowd, however, he bowed dramatically once again. This brought another cheer, albeit weaker than the first, which decayed into a nervous hush as the country elf slowly withdrew his alternate glaive with his left hand.
Before Du’ina had time to reconsider, his opponent’s thinner, longer glaive jabbed forward with blinding speed. With a quick double parry, Du’ina just barely managed to avoid being pierced through the heart, but once again he was retreating, his feet unable to obey his will.
Another jab nearly removed his right eye, and then another threatened his groin. Not without humor, Ilona saw Du’ina’s predicament. Normally, expensive mithril armor, such as Du’ina wore, would have provided some protection against a bare, unenchanted blade. But this country elf did not follow the rules of etiquette. Even if he did not kill Du’ina, he would leave him maimed, blind, or possibly even castrated.
Ilona surmised that a man like Du’ina, who existed simply for pleasure and sport, could never endure such a fate.
Sweat ran rivulets down his forehead as again and again he dodged the angry, biting blade, so much like a serpent in its attack, each step bringing him closer to a shameful fall out of the Kaj. Despite the seeming advantage of his two blades to the country elf’s single glaive, Du’ina never managed a single attack. Both hands remained in constant motion in a frantic, desperate attempt to protect the more vulnerable parts of his anatomy.
Up in the galleries, Ilona feared the end was drawing near for this poor peacock of an elf, and she seemed powerless to stop it. She considered charging down into the stone circle and placing her body physically between the two combatants, but she knew her efforts would amount to nothing. She would be removed, presumably with all gentility, and the savage ceremony would continue as it had for centuries.
Strangely enough, her consort’s fears seemed to have subsided. Zanphir now looked on with an eager, almost lustful excitement, apparently content to watch her cousin’s death as long as it afforded her some relief from the monotony of her delicate, noble existence. But then, loyalty had never been Zanphir’s most plentiful virtue.
Ilona had no such shortfall.
Reaching under her robe, she withdrew a slender white wand. The powers of her Bloodstone ring might have been suppressed by this unholy arena, but wands drew upon entirely different sources of energy, innate in the methods of their construction. And Ilona’s wand was no small magical artifact. Centuries old and crafted from the most hallowed Starwood elm, it was capable of great destruction. Ilona had no doubt that the wand would work. The only trick would be to avoid killing everyone in the Kaj. She would have to use a lesser spell, and something quick if she wanted to save Du’ina’s life. She pointed just above the duelers’ heads and whispered the command.
Zanphir saw the glowing wand and gasped, “No, Ilona! You mustn’t!”
But it was too late. The spell had been cast. Ilona waited for the temporal rift to form, for the flashing blades to float up and away into the vast emptiness of the cosmos. “Let them fight without weapons,” she thought smugly to herself. “Maybe they can box or wrestle like little boys in the academy schoolyard.”
She waited, but once again nothing happened–no floating glaives, no temporal rift–nothing.
Zanphir pushed down Ilona’s wand arm with surprising strength. “Stop it, Ilona! Are you trying to get us in trouble?”
“I’m trying to save your cousin’s life!” Ilona exclaimed with righteous fervor. Her voice was much more than a whisper, but this time no one paid her any heed. The battle in the ring was reaching its climax and all eyes were drawn by the imminence of blood. Once again, poor Du’ina, outclassed and outmaneuvered, had found his heel teetering on the edge of the stone ring. Another stinging jab, maybe two, and he would fall–either to shame or to death.
With one last effort, he parried the incoming blade with both his glowing glaives in a desperate attempt to draw it wide–wide enough for him to step forward away from the edge of the ring and maybe even to strike back. For a moment, it appeared that his defense had worked. The biting blade went wide, but before the weary Du’ina could mount a counterattack, the country elf drew his second glaive in the same fluid, lightning-fast motion.
Now the exhausted, bewildered noble, with his sagging Griffin feather, faced two circling, weaving, jabbing slivers of death. It was too much. With one deliberate step, he tumbled off the raised stone platform and into the dirt below, but not before the country elf had severed the Griffin feather from his preposterous hat with one quick swipe of his keen, silver blade.
Ilona sighed with relief, but Zanphir only sneered.
“Coward,” she said under her breath, but her voice was drowned out by the cheers of the excited crowd. They had witnessed an event unprecedented in recent decades–the utter humiliation of a noble, high-ranking glaive master by a poor, country glaive lord. This would give them something to gossip about for weeks, perhaps months. Although there were less than a hundred witnesses in the arena this warm, eternal spring evening, tomorrow there would be a thousand elves who claimed to have watched the duel with their own eyes. Such was the noble life of the elves of Xristhana.
The only elf who seemed unmoved by the event was the victor himself. Before anyone could offer even a salute of congratulations, he slipped off the back of the ring and into the darkness of the night.
“Why did you do that?” Zanphir scolded sometime later as the two elfin ladies sauntered along the garden trail on their way back to their respective noble houses. “Pull out your wand like that. You could have gotten us in real trouble. You know my shrew of a mother would not approve and yours–”
“Careful, Zanphir. I have heard that the breeze whispers in your mother’s ears, and mine can see all through the faintest candlelight,” Ilona teased as she balanced a single flame on her finger.
Zanphir cringed. Ilona may have meant her words in jest, but there was much truth to them. Ilona’s mirth turned to reflection as she pondered the fire on her finger. Why hadn’t her spells worked? And her wand–it had never failed her before. Even now she could feel the magical instrument pulsing beneath her robes with powerful energy. It should have worked, she thought again. So intent was she upon her meditations that she failed to notice the shadow above her in the great Starwood elm, until it dropped directly in front of her.
Zanphir screamed and Ilona felt her attention warped suddenly back into the present. The flame on her finger grew at once into a ball of fire.
“My apologies,” the intruder pronounced immediately, seeing the danger in the young mage’s hand. “My intention was not to frighten you. I thought you heard my approach or I never would have dropped so near.”
“It’s the glaive lord,” Zanphir squealed excitedly, “the victor in the arena.” Despite her cunning, Zanphir had a knack for silliness, stating the obvious in any situation.
“Mithrain, son of Birindain, at your majestic service.” The country elf grinned sheepishly and bowed before the ladies, with a flourish of his hat, much in the fashion of the pompous Du’ina.
Ilona could see from his clothes that he wasn’t as poor as she had first imagined. Although he wore no mithril, his light armor was finely crafted of steel and iron chain, as good as any soldier in the field. His hat was old, but still noble in its design and stitching, the only addition being Du’ina’s Griffin feather that sprung from it like a newly grown weed.
“And what do you want of us?” Ilona queried coldly as the fireball shrank to nothingness in the palm of her hand.
“Yes, what do you want?” Zanphir giggled, her new infatuation perhaps overshadowed by the prospect of a little noble snobbery.
“Want?” Mithrain echoed with mock surprise. “Only to share the spoils of my victory with the fairest maiden in all of elfdom.” And with elaborate humility, Mithrain lowered his head in a deep bow and extended the Griffin feather towards Ilona.
“You want to give me your hat?” Ilona asked and Zanphir broke immediately into giggles. “A male’s sweaty, soldier’s cap.”
“And not even in fashion,” Zanphir added, half into Ilona’s ear but loud enough for Mithrain to hear. The country elf stood erect, not yet offended, but certainly taken aback.
“No, of course not.” He plucked the feather from the hat and extended it once again, adding the bow for good measure. Ilona looked at the feather, her eyebrow cocked.
“I have four at home,” she lied. Despite her noble position, she had never owned a Griffin feather. They were hard to come by, even for the richest of houses. How Du’ina ever got one was a mystery to all.
“I’ll take it,” Zanphir exclaimed, snatching the feather from Mithrain’s grasp.
He looked up, startled. “Well then. Please allow me to accompany you ladies on this starless night. There may be thieves about.”
“Thieves? And what would you do about them?” Ilona asked, cocking her eyebrow once again. Mithrain withdrew his glaives with startling speed. Zanphir gasped, but Ilona hid her surprise behind a crooked grin. “So you intend to rob us, then?”
“What? No!” Mithrain was now completely at a loss. “Never! I seek only to protect you.”
Ilona took a step closer. “And you think those pathetic slivers of iron could protect us?”
“I assure you, these are fine blades, crafted by–”
Ilona took another step, her unprotected chest drawing dangerously close to the cutting edge of Mithrain’s glaives. “What makes you think we have need of your masculine protection?” She extended her palm and let the fireball rise once again.
Mithrain’s eyes widened as he took an involuntary step backwards, the heel of his leather boot striking against the sturdy Starwood elm behind him. But Ilona would not let him retreat so easily. With a whisper, she was directly before him once again, the edge of his blade pressed up against her tunic.
“How about a contest, glaives master?” Ilona chewed her words like bitter herbs. “Your steel against my fireball.”
Zanphir’s childish giggles came to a sudden stop. Ilona had crossed the line of simple teasing. Mithrain was in real danger. He could not strike the incensed lady of the House of Fire, no more than he could strike his own sister, but he could not withdraw either, at least not with the stubborn elm pressed up against his retreating back foot. Ilona, too, understood the soldier’s predicament, and she reveled in it.
“I suppose you are correct, fair lady,” Mithrain said at last with just a hint of trepidation. “You have no need of my protection, no need at all.”
“That is true, but you have not yet answered my challenge. Think of the honor you will gain in my defeat– a high mistress of Xristhana’s most noble House of Fire vanquished by the lowly blade of a country elf. But will the tip of your glaive find my heart before the words of my spell pass my lips? Let’s find out, shall we?”
Ilona began her spell, but she did not finish. A bright flash blinded her momentarily, interrupting her chant, and reducing her fireball to a wisp of smoke. When she looked up, Mithrain was gone.
“Where did he go?” Zanphir asked stupidly. She looked down the path and up in the elm branches. “Vanished like the wind. Maybe he wasn’t such a country bumpkin after all.”
“Just tricks,” Ilona corrected sharply, “childish tricks.”
“Would you really have killed him?” Zanphir looked at Ilona with a puzzled expression, and then she laughed suddenly, not waiting for an answer. “Oh Ilona, what fun!” She skipped into the air with the grace of a dancer and sprinkled faery fire on the great elm’s dangling branches.
Ilona shook her head at her silly friend, but an unsettling thought could not escape her consciousness. The glaive lord had won two duels this night, and although he did not know it, the second was much more dangerous than the first.